By Chris Lushis
NOTRE DAME — “May the eyes of your hearts be enlightened, that you may know the hope that belongs to His call.” These words from St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians served as the inspiration and basis for a conference held at the University of Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s College on March 26-27, focused on the dangers of pornography and the necessary response of the Church.
Numerous theologians, psychologists, educators and students participated in academic and pastoral discussions centered on the theme of “Seeing with the Eyes of the Heart: Cultivating a Sacramental Imagination in an Age of Pornography.” Speakers first elaborated upon the harmful effects of pornography before establishing the counteraction necessary to provide systemic healing.
Erica Scharrer, professor and chair of communication at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, began the conference by presenting details of a psychological study she had overseen, which evaluated “the contemporary character of pornography.” She revealed how “mainstream pornographic videos increasingly demonstrate high degrees of degradation, violence, abuse and both verbal and physical aggression, most often depicting men as perpetrators and women as targets of these actions.”
William Struthers, professor of psychology at Wheaton College, next shared how viewing sexually explicit material (SEM) influences the thoughts and behaviors of men. Through his neurological research he found that “men who are often exposed to SEM become less interested in real women because they have access to a controlled environment to engage their sexual desires without having to deal with the reality or messiness of a real relationship.” He also shared that “when viewing SEM, men neurologically trigger the function of vicariously engaging in the behaviors and feelings of what the performers are experiencing.” This leads to real life changes in behavior, which he addressed include “increases in risk-taking action, misperceptions of what should be expected or demanded in real relationships, and a higher likelihood of become more depressed, experiencing self doubt or becoming unable to bond with others.” Struthers reminded, however, that “through the lens of the Gospel, we find our response to this problem, because we are instead exposed to the examples of dignity, sacrifice and faithfulness, which SEM so greatly lacks.”
Dr. Jill Manning, a licensed marriage and family therapist, then followed by touching upon the effects of pornography on women. Citing further psychological research, she indicated that “pornography acceptance among women is a stronger correlate with permissive sexuality, alcohol use, binge drinking and smoking than actual pornography use. This pushes back on the notion that merely thinking something in your head is harmless. What we accept and adopt into our personal values and ethics matters. We also know that regular exposure to pornography use is associated with dynamics and attitudes that cause desensitization and increased tolerance to offensive material, negative body image, distorted views of sexuality, cynicism regarding love, and viewing abstinence as unhealthy and marriage as sexually confining, which research actually refutes.”
In response to these serious findings, the conference then shifted to explore how the Church aims to return the focus to a viewpoint on truth, holiness and the beauty of creation. Speaking on “The Sacramental Imagination,” David Fagerberg, Notre Dame theology professor and St. Matthew Cathedral, South Bend, parishioner, indicated, “An element of sacramental experience is when one thing is seen but another is understood. The problem with the pornographic imagination is that it has gone blind, and only sees part of the real world, obscuring what is true, good, beautiful. The beauty of the world is not made of 50 shades of grey, but 100,000 shades of glory.”
He referred to the words of St. Pope John Paul II to further illustrate this point, “Chastity by no means signifies rejection of human sexuality or lack of esteem for it: rather it signifies spiritual energy capable of defending love from the perils of selfishness and aggressiveness.” Reminding of why God created human beings, Fagerberg invoked that “the eternal purpose, which always existed in the mind of the Father, was for us to be His adopted children. His plan for the fullness of time can be seen in the body of Christ walking the shores of Galilee. The Son’s incarnation makes known the Father’s mystery, and we come to see this not despite the body, but through the body. This mystery involves us; indeed, we have been chosen to participate in this plan. ”
To continue emphasizing the visual culture of Catholicism, Dianne Phillips, an independent scholar, shared a slideshow presentation of various renditions of Catholic art, indicating how the wonder of God’s creation and the vulnerability of Christ depicted as a child born in poverty or a man crucified upon a cross allows the eyes of our heart to gaze upon transcendent beauty that counteracts a pornographic imagination.
Further showing how our response involves a multi-sensory experience in the context of the Mass, Boston College Theology Professor Boyd Coolman asserted, “The liturgy moves us through the senses to experience unitive contact with God. Pornography inhibits its practitioners from moving on to real contact with the real bodies of real people; those who use it can no longer touch and be touched. The Eucharistic liturgy, however, which begins with affected vision but is inexorably consummated in unitive contact, enacts precisely what is missing in porn, functioning as a kind of therapeutic exercise for learning or re-learning how to sense and relate to real bodies properly.”
Notre Dame theology graduate student, Nick Ogle, offered an additional practical understanding of offsetting the culture of pornography through extending selfless charity to others. He suggests that, “the corporal works of mercy offer us a means of returning to God not only in spirit, but with all of who we are.”
Saint Mary’s College, as host and sponsor of the conference, also included a presentation by Holy Cross Sister Eva Mary Hooker, on how college founder Holy Cross Sister Madeleva Wolff, sought to show throughout the campus “how art and the beauty of creation enable us to see God on moral and intellectual levels; providing an education of both the mind and the heart.”
Throughout the conference, graduate and undergraduate panel discussions were held to explore in greater depth how to live out a sacramental imagination on a daily basis.
Also included was an opportunity for visitors to participate in a Byzantine style icon-writing workshop, providing an additional way to “learn to see with the eyes of the heart.”
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